(Re)building Character in America’s Schools
In his writing and policy work, Yuval Levin advocates for rejuvenating our civic lives by renewing trust in our institutions
Yuval Levin is worried about the organizations that keep our society functioning, from local churches all the way to the U.S. Congress. As a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the founding editor of National Affairs, and a former policy aide in the George W. Bush White House, Levin has become one of the country’s leading advocates for rebuilding trust in our institutions.
Schools, naturally, are part of this conversation. He thinks public schools enjoy much broader support than many people realize, while major universities have lost sight of what it means to form young people into thoughtful citizens.
“Traditional liberal education also has a crucial role to play in shaping our leaders,” he wrote in American Compass. “Rather than retreating from responsibility, our elite universities need to show rising generations how to embrace it.”
Levin thinks schools should do more to explicitly build character and shape the direction of students’ lives. “We trust institutions that form trustworthy people,” Levin tells The Elective. “Right now, too many people are using their institution as a stage or a platform or a place to express themselves, instead of a place to work toward shared goals.”
Speaking with The Elective, Levin discussed how to restore faith in institutions, why having a voice is no substitute for taking real action, and why hope is better than optimism.
American Enterprise Institute (Levin), Basic Books (cover)
You’ve written a lot about trust in institutions, and how damaging it is for Americans to lose faith in the organizations and governing structures that hold the country together. How is this affecting our schools?
In most places, the public school is one of the most trusted institutions in a community. People trust their own children’s school more than they trust almost anything in their lives. Despite all the headlines, schools have a lot of social capital to work with in most places.
To keep that trust, I think it’s very important for schools to see themselves as formative institutions, as places that shape their students into better people. And some of what that requires right now is a kind of countercultural formation. Our culture is forming us right now to be bad citizens in a lot of different ways, and schools need to very consciously push back.
I think it’s important that we teach students specifically about how to be citizens in a big, pluralistic democracy. It's important to help students understand the difference between expression and action, to think in practical terms about how something gets done in government and civic life.
Say people in a community decide that an intersection is too dangerous and needs a stoplight. What happens next? Those basic next steps are unfamiliar to a lot of Americans. Everyone is so focused on national controversies, but people can have a lot more influence than they imagine by being one of the few people who show up locally, who know where to be heard and how to engage in public issues.
Just standing on the sidelines with your arms folded, saying, “These people are horrible! These decisions are terrible!”—that’s not a very good way of being an effective citizen.
It seems like there’s an urgent call for better civic education in every generation, and we’re always wrangling over what that means in practice. Why is it so tough to teach effective citizenship?
I think we still have trouble even defining civic education. It’s not an easy thing. But I would focus more on practice than on knowledge. Is it about knowing what the Constitution says; remembering what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg? I think those things are important, but so is knowing how change happens, who peoples’ representatives are, and how to get involved beyond simply expressing outrage.
If you’re the kind of citizen who’s going to be active and engaged, it’s not hard to learn the basic structure of the Constitution or your local laws. The modern world makes knowledge very easy to access.
But practice becomes more difficult. You can ask Siri who won the Battle of Yorktown. But how to be an effective citizen, how to work for progress without losing basic faith in our democracy, is much harder. It requires building healthy habits, and that’s not something the internet is going to do for you. You need good teachers for that.
Can you explain what you mean by teaching students the distinction between expression and action?
In so many ways, it seems like having the loudest voice has become the goal for many people. You see that transformation in the business world, you see it in colleges and universities, you see it in Congress. People look at everything as a platform for personal expression. Of course, expression is important! But it’s not the only thing we should be doing with our lives.
I think in a lot of ways, we’ve come to think of expression as action. When young people encounter some injustice in society, they decide that what they need to do is to express dissatisfaction with that, and insist that others express dissatisfaction with it, too. That’s all fine, but it’s not a substitute for meaningful action.
The Civil Rights Movement was not just a bunch of protests against injustice. Those protests were a way of showing institutional strength, a means to a larger end. You don’t just bring half a million people to the National Mall for its own sake, you do that as a way of showing you can bring them to the voting booth too and that you can pressure lawmakers to pass legislation and change policy.
I think we’ve lost that sense of broader goals almost entirely. We now think expression is the whole thing. But when you give something a thumbs up or thumbs down on social media, you haven’t done anything at all. Our society has evolved to think expression is action, when expression is just a part—a precursor—to action.
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Students and activists participate in a climate change "strike" on March 15, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois.
What’s your view on activism and its role in civic education? What’s the distinction between an activist and an engaged citizen?
Activism can be good, and there are moments when it’s absolutely needed. But I think an activist is an outsider—an external critic who points out what’s wrong and tries to get things to change. That’s an important role, but I think it’s too easy for us to see ourselves as outsiders when we’re really not. I think it’s much harder for people to see themselves as insiders.
We need more people who are interested in actually doing the things that need doing in ways that might be worthy of approval. People who will be at the meeting, do the work to forge compromises, figure out what the way forward might look like. That’s all much harder than lobbing criticism from the outside.
But being an insider is a way to have much more positive influence. It’s a way to advance change that can be much more effective than writing a brilliant critique or firing off the perfect tweet. We need to see the appeal of the insider, which is much harder because our society so much emphasizes the appeal of the outsider.
You’re saying more people need the experience of trying to lead and exercise power, not just criticize those in power?
I think it’s important to think practically about politics. In a funny way, power is moderating. Being totally powerless, an outside critic, is a great way to make yourself more extreme and radical because you’re not having to make hard choices and confront inevitable compromises.
Sometimes people have no choice but to be outsiders, of course. But oftentimes we do it to ourselves. We put ourselves outside, we make ourselves incapable of actually doing anything because we don’t want the responsibility. When you step in and try to solve the problem, when you become an insider, you’re almost always going to understand the complexity of an issue in a way you can’t from the outside.
I spent four years working for the President of the United States, and over and over again, I learned how hard it is to make real change. The president has immense power, but time and again you learn the limitations of that power. You learn that you have to make decisions where answers are not obvious and change is not easy, and that humility is a healthy attitude to have as a leader and as a citizen in a complex democracy.
You’ve been outspoken about the role of major universities in shaping our national culture—and not for the better. How should higher education think about educating our future leaders?
It’s obvious that our elite universities are a tremendous asset. They’re a magnet for talent, and they’re a source of great progress in a lot of ways. They’re truly one of the best things about America.
But we now have an American elite that lives in a bubble, and the universities have created that bubble. They’ve created an elite culture that is very sure it is right about a great many things, so certain that it doesn't really try to understand anything happening in the wider society.
In some ways, you want universities to be in a bubble. That’s historically been part of their strength. In a bustling society, a broken society, even a tyrannical society, universities have been a place where you can pursue the truth, think about science, and make progress. But now the universities are also the source of the people who run so many other things.
We used to have a lot of different, competing elites. The people who ran companies used to have very little in common with the people who ran academia or Hollywood studios. Now those people are largely alike. They share a lot of assumptions about the world. Tocqueville was very struck by how many different kinds of elites we had, but that’s less true now. There really is an elite, it’s properly described in that way, and our politics now consists of that elite and everyone else who’s somewhat resentful of it.
Our universities have created that elite without making demands on it. They see themselves as shaping that elite by selection, by finding people who are worthy of it. But rather than think of themselves as forming an elite by selection, they need to think of themselves as creating an elite by formation. They should be much more confident and explicit about forming elites who are constrained, who feel a sense of responsibility to the larger society, and who actually like the larger society instead of looking down on it.
Our elite universities are actively creating this problem. They’re failing to recognize how they can be more constructively formative, they’re failing to think critically about what virtues and character an elite should have.
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Erin Finley of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and her fellow U.S. Naval Academy graduates throw their hats into the air at the conclusion of their graduation and commissioning ceremony in the academy's Memorial Stadium on May 27, 2022, in Annapolis, Maryland.
It doesn’t seem like many schools and universities are eager to take on that more prescriptive role. Why not?
In a lot of ways, intentional formation can seem oppressive, or can actually be oppressive. But it’s also absolutely essential to earning the trust of the public. The most trusted national institution at this point is the military. I think the military is trusted not just because it’s good at its job—sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't—but because it shapes people. It says, “Our people are serious about their responsibilities.” That’s how they present themselves to the country, that’s how they recruit. “You can work really, really hard and it’ll suck and you’ll become a great person. We shape respectful people. We shape impressive people.”
When you tell somebody you went to Harvard, maybe they think you’re smart. But when you tell someone you went to the Naval Academy, they think you’re a serious person. I think it’s much harder for the elite universities to say that they want to shape their students to be serious, responsible people. It’s kind of a traditional, old-school idea.
I don’t totally blame Harvard or other great schools for not really wanting to approach 18-year-olds that way. This is a free society, and we really value the ability to shape ourselves, to shape society, to have that freedom. So universities say, “Come here, explore your options, become yourself.”
Promising to make you a better person—to shape you in very assertive, prescriptive ways—feels like an oppressive way for colleges to present themselves. But when it doesn’t feel like our elites are constrained by a sense of responsibility, they become much harder to trust. American society does not trust its elites right now. And a society cannot function when it doesn’t trust the people who lead it.
But you’re still hopeful we can get this right—to find that balance between freedom and formation?
I am. I think hope is a virtue. And a virtue, in the classical tradition, is the middle point between two sins. St. Thomas says hope sits between despair on one hand and presumption on the other. Despair says there’s nothing we can do, all is lost. Presumption says we don’t need to do anything, this will work out and be fine. Think of those as pessimism and optimism. Those are both terrible mistakes because they both make you passive.
Hope is in the middle. Hope says this could work out, if we do the right things, make the right choices. But it could go either way. We have to somehow participate in our own salvation. That participation is crucial to being a thriving person. Hope makes you active. It makes you think about how you can make a difference, how you can become the kind of person people look to and count on. And that’s a very satisfying way to live.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.